Grapevine grief

Pruning time, and I’m only just in time!


P1050546Sunny Sundays in mid-winter are the perfect opportunity for hand-pruning the dozen grapevines in our small orchard.

It’s a job that I enjoy, particularly as I grew all of these young table grapevines from cuttings.

Yet I soon discover that I’ve been too slow removing the tough plastic cords that I used to train the young vines up to the wire; these have cut deeply into the trunk where they were fastened at ground level three years ago when this small vineyard began.

P1050545This is also the likely reason I had such a poor crop this past summer – sap and nutrients would have been struggling to reach the canopy from the root system through this man-made bottleneck.

So after the pruning is done I get down on my hands and knees – a serious penance for me – and carefully cut away the original ties to allow the vines to recover.

I go to my bed a humbled man.


Giving peas a chance

It’s a dry weekend in mid-winter and cook and gardener need to trade services to ease major sticking points on each others ‘to-do’ lists; pruning   is to be exchanged for some weeding.

P1050240The neighbour’s chestnut and fig trees have been driving the cook crazy – leaves, sticky fruit, prickly chestnut shell cases and possum scat have been making a mess of the driveway for years and the clean-up effort is costing more labour than the trees repay in nuts and figs. P1050495So the gardener undertakes the heavy work of chainsaw pruning and cleaning up afterwards.

In exchange, the smaller, lighter and vastly more flexible cook undertakes some much-needed weeding in the pea patch, a job that’s been a thorn in the gardener's eye for a month now. There, winter weeds have smothered the pea seeds planted to provide a late winter green vegetable crop and an early Spring soil improver.

P1050513In among this woody chaos lies an answer to the light-deprived pea crop that has now been cleared of smothering competition but is sagging all over the ground after failing to get to grips with the trellis under which they have been row planted.

P1050509How so?

Well, it just happens that twiggy chestnut prunings are ideal for just the sort of support that the small tendrils of pea plants can grip to hike themselves up to the trellis wire. So the gardener prunes these directly from the heap piling up on the driveway, leaving the remainder for the woodheap and shredder. The ends of these twiggy forks are pruned at a sharp angle to allow them to be pushed into the soft moist soil. P1050516The pea plants are then lifted off the soil and draped over these forked sticks out of reach of soil-based pests while heading for sunlight, air and that distant trellis.

By sunset Sunday evening both jobs are done, the fire is lit and the family are coming for dinner. Just a few more months and pea soup will be on the menu.


Orange, carrot and galangal juice

P1050445Mid-winter, and we’re awash with citrus – oranges, lemons, grapefruit and mandarins.

Fortunately, the carrot crop is strong and healthy and, as is the case with carrots, does not need to be pulled and stored but can remain safely in-situ in the garden until needed. They’re a bit weird and stumpy in this new bed, but it’s a stumpy variety anyway (‘Nantes’) and growing in clay; I simply don’t look for beauty in a juicing carrot.

So carrot and orange juice is on the menu, with galangal for flavour in place of ginger (which we don’t grow here).


I dig the galangal rhizomes with a heavy mattock then peel and slice them into the juicer.

P1050456The oranges are flooding through the kitchen anyway, with the flesh taking secondary place to the collection of orange peel that will be processed and dipped in dark chocolate to make our favourite winter snack. So the cook’s done all the peeling and its a simple job to push oranges and slices of scrubbed carrots and galangal bulb through the juicer.

At the end of all that is a refreshing and nutritious drink. The spare galangal is pureed through a vegetable soup and adds a fine texture and flavour there too.


Winter mulch and caterpillar wars

P1050391The winter rains have come at last and a whole new bunch of water management problems confront the gardener - how to get about safely on boggy paths.

Fortunately the solution is both simple and benefits the garden in the long-term; we lay down our summer mulch on winter paths six months before we need it to retain soil moisture in the rising temperatures of Spring. The winter rains will soften this barley straw and begin the process of breaking it down so that in a year’s time it will have been incorporated into an organic soil richer for the extra carbon.


The chicken flock will walk on this drier surface throughout winter and scratch it about in their search for the insect life that will build up under there in the layer where straw meets soil. The softer straw that results is largely pest and seed free and is much easier to lay carefully around new Spring seedlings.


P1050431On a different front, the butterflies of autumn have laid their eggs on green plants and have hatched caterpillars that are hacking apart crops of comfrey, silverbeet and German cabbage.



These Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) green caterpillars on the green leaves of the cabbages are almost impossible for a human to spot and squash so its tempting to turn the chooks in to clean them up. Sadly, chickens love eating cabbage leaves even more than caterpillars do, so I need to search the leaves for them myself, tossing them over the fence to the chooks waiting eagerly on the other side.


‘Black woolly bear’ caterpillars (the larvae of a native ‘black and white tiger moth’) are even more damaging because they don’t seem to have any natural predators – even the chooks won’t touch them.  I also pluck these off the comfrey and silverbeet leaves and toss them out onto the path with the mulch. Let them walk and work to get to feed on my vegetables, I say.